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On Ecology, economy, and human health

by Sandra Steingraber

Published in the May/June 2009 issue of Orion magazine



Painting: Kristin Baker

THIRTY YEARS AGO, in between my sophomore and junior years of college, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Those are amazing words to write: Thirty years ago I had cancer. I had just turned twenty. I was hoping that I would live long enough to have sex with someone; I hadn’t done that yet. I could not have imagined, while lying in my hospital bed, exhaling anesthesia, that someday I could write, Thirty years ago I had cancer.

Last fall, on a sunny afternoon, the phone rang while I was trying to meet a writing deadline. It was the nurse in my urologist’s office. She was calling to say that the pathologist had found, in the urine collected from my last cystoscopic checkup, abnormal cell clusters. And also blood.

After I hung up, I looked out the window of my small house where the sun still shone on the last of the marigolds and tomato vines. I looked down at my computer screen where the cursor still blinked on the same paragraph. I could hear in the kitchen the tomatoes still bobbing around in the stockpot that was steaming away on the stove. The world was still the same, but it felt to me a suddenly altered place.

I provided a second urine sample for further testing, and based on the results of that, a third sample that was sent out for genetic analysis. Ten days later, I got a call from the urology nurse. The results were normal.

So what am I trying to say here? Am I fine or not fine? Well, I don’t know. I’m living within that period of time known as watchful waiting. Much of my adult life has been one of watchful waiting. Watchful means vigilance, screening tests, imaging, blood work, self-advocacy, second opinions, and hours logged in hospital parking garages. Waiting means you go back to your half-finished essay, to the tomatoes on the stove. You lay plans and carry on within the confines of ambiguity. You meet deadlines and make grocery lists. And sometimes you jump when the phone rings on a sunny afternoon.

Thirty years ago I had cancer.

After I left the hospital, I went back to the university, resumed my life as a biology major, and began mucking around in the medical literature. It didn’t take me too long to learn that bladder cancer is considered a quintessential environmental cancer, meaning that we have more evidence for a link between toxic chemical exposures and bladder cancer risk than for almost any other kind of cancer, with data going back a hundred years. I also discovered that the identification of bladder carcinogens does not preclude their ongoing use in commerce. Just because, through careful scientific study, we learn that a chemical causes cancer doesn’t mean that we ban it from the marketplace.

I also learned that, in spite of all this evidence, the words carcinogen and environment rarely appeared in the pamphlets on cancer in my doctors’ offices and waiting rooms. Nor were these words used much in conversations I had with my various health-care providers, who were interested instead in my family medical history. I was happy enough to provide it. There is a lot of cancer in my family. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age forty-four. I have uncles with colon cancer, prostate cancer, stromal cancer. My aunt died of the same kind of bladder cancer—transitional cell carcinoma—that I had.

But here’s the punch line to my family story: I am adopted. I’m not related to my family by chromosomes. So I began to ask hard questions about the presumption that what runs in families must necessarily run in genes. I began to ask, what else do families have in common? Such as, say, drinking water wells. And when I looked at the literature on cancer among adult adoptees, I learned that, in fact, the chance of an adopted person dying of cancer is closely related to whether or not her adoptive parents had died of cancer and far less related to whether or not her biological parents had met such a fate. But you would never know that based on the questions asked on medical intake forms.

So thirty years ago, as a college undergraduate, I made a bet. I bet that my cancer diagnosis had something to do with the environment in which I lived as a child. And I think I was right about this.

As I learned years later, while researching my book Living Downstream, the county where I grew up, along the east bluff of the Illinois River, has statistically elevated cancer rates. Three dozen different industries line the river valley there, and farmers practice chemically intensive agriculture along its floodplains. Hazardous waste is imported from as far away as New Jersey, and the drinking water wells contain traces of both farm chemicals and industrial chemicals, including those with demonstrable links to . . . bladder cancer.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, in the fall of 1988, when I was a graduate student in biology at the University of Michigan, I made another bet. I was working as an opinion writer at the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper there. My editor and I laid bets as to which system would collapse first—economy or ecology. I said ecology. I think I was wrong.

I think we were both wrong. They seem to be crumbling simultaneously.

Let’s compare our twin “eco” systems. Our economy and our ecology have in common, it seems to me, a number of shared attributes. Both are complex, globalized systems whose interconnections are little understood until something goes wrong. Who knew that mortgages in California could lead to bankruptcy in Iceland? But there it is. Who knew that the miracle of pollination depends on the synchronicity of time and temperature? But the ongoing decoupling of day length—which awakens the flowers—from ambient temperature—which awakens the bees—reveals that it is so dependent.

In both systems, eroding diversity creates fragility, as when financial systems merge and collapse, as when farming systems become monocultures and thereby vulnerable to catastrophic pest outbreaks. Damage to both systems is made worse by positive feedback loops. In the economic world, panic and fear drive investment decisions that lead to more panic and fear. In the ecological world, greenhouse gases raise temperatures that melt permafrost. Melted permafrost rots and releases more greenhouse gases.

Here’s a key difference, though. For one of our failing eco-systems, we became immediately engaged in drastic and unprecedented measures to rescue it—even though no one seemed to understand it very well. And for our other eco-system . . . well, it’s still widely considered too depressing and overwhelming to talk about in much detail.

As part of my work, I visit a lot of college campuses. Lately, I’ve been asking students to engage in a thought exercise: Imagine that ecological metrics were as familiar to us as economic ones. Imagine ecological equivalents to the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P that reported to us every day—in newspapers, on radio, on websites, on the crawl at the bottom of TV screens, on oversized tickers in Times Square—data about the various sectors of our ecological system and how they are faring. What are the atmospheric parts per million of carbon dioxide today? Has the extinction rate become inflationary? What is the exchange rate between sea ice and fresh water? What is the national deficit of topsoil?

Now imagine that the mainstream media were as interested in the thoughts of the president’s ecological team—most notably marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, who now leads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and climate expert John Holdren, the president’s new science advisor—as they are in the opinions of his economic team. Imagine if, in primetime interview after interview, these public servants provided us regular environmental analysis. On an almost daily basis, the American citizenry would be reminded that one in every four mammals now appears to be heading toward extinction. The Gulf Stream, which drives nutrient cycling in our oceans, is starting to get wobbly, while dead zones in the oceans are growing. The oceans, we would be informed, provide half of our planetary oxygen. Shoveling coal into ovens to generate electricity is loading the atmosphere with mercury, which rains down and is transformed by ancient bacteria into the powerful brain poison methylmercury.

Methylmercury is siphoned up the food chain, concentrating as it goes, so that nearly all freshwater lakes and streams east of the Mississippi are now unfishable, and we must advise women and children against eating tuna salad sandwiches.

Imagine that all Americans find out, whether they want to or not, that atmospheric loading of carbon dioxide is acidifying the ocean in ways that, if unchecked, will drop pH to the point where calcium carbonate goes into solution, and that will spell the end of anything with a shell—from clams and oysters to coral reefs.

Suppose that ecological pundits discussed every night on cable TV the ongoing disappearance of bees, bats, and other pollinators and the possibly dire consequences for our food supply. Suppose we received daily reports on the status of our aquifers. Suppose legislators and citizens both agreed that if we don’t take immediate action to bail out our ecological system, something truly terrible will happen. Our ecology will tank.

The fact that nothing close to this is happening is the difference between economy and ecology, both of which share an etymology: eco, from the Greek oikos, meaning “household.”

TEN YEARS AGO, I gave birth to a child. After twenty years as a solitary adult ecologist, I became a habitat, an inland ocean with a marine mammal swimming around inside of me. I became a water cycle. A food chain. A jet stream. My daughter’s name is Faith. I’ll leave it to you to imagine why an adopted cancer survivor might name a daughter Faith. My daughter is planning a career as a marine biologist. She wants to write her first book on the octopus. My son Elijah is seven. He is named for the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, who hails from my home state of Illinois. Elijah wishes to be the president, a farmer, or a member of the Beatles. He figures there are two job openings there already.

Since becoming a mother, I’ve made another bet. I am betting that, in between my own adult life and my children’s, an environmental human rights movement will arise. It’s one whose seeds have already been sown, and it’s one with a dual focus. First, the environmental human rights movement will take up with urgency the task of rescuing and repairing our ecological system upon which all human life depends. It is a movement that will recognize the truth of the following statement: “Nothing is more important to human beings than an ecologically functioning, life sustaining biosphere on the Earth. . . . We cannot live long or well without a functioning biosphere, and so it is worth everything we have.” Those are the opening sentences of a powerful new manifesto, “Law for the Ecological Age,” authored by attorney and biochemist Joseph Guth and published in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law.

At the same time, this environmental human rights movement will take up with equal fervor the task of divorcing our economy from its current dependencies on chemical toxicants that are known to trespass inside our bodies, without our consent, thus violating, as some have argued, our security of person. Our current environmental regulatory apparatus does not require rigorous toxicological testing of chemicals as a precondition for marketing them, as we do, for example, for pharmaceuticals. It also makes it very difficult to ban chemicals once they are in commerce. Of the eighty thousand synthetic chemicals allowed into the market, exactly five have been outlawed under the Toxics Substances Control Act since 1976. Our current environmental regulatory apparatus allows economic benefits to be balanced against human health risks. It fails to take into account the fact that we are all exposed, to use Rachel Carson’s words, to a changing kaleidoscope of chemicals over our lifetimes and not just one chemical at a time.

In umbilical cord blood alone, 287 different chemicals have been identified, including pesticides, stain removers, wood preservatives, mercury, and flame retardants. Our current environmental regulatory apparatus does not take into account the timing of exposure. And yet the science clearly shows that toxic exposures during key moments of infant and child development—especially during the opera of embryonic development—raise risks for harm in ways that are not predictable by dose. Benzo[a]pyrene, an ingredient in tobacco smoke, diesel exhaust, and soot, can damage eggs in the ovaries. Exposure to pesticides in men can reduce sperm count. Thus, our environmental policies may be eroding our fertility. And if a pregnancy is achieved, exposure to certain chemicals raises the risk that it will be lost through miscarriage, or what we in the scientific community call spontaneous abortion. Evidence suggests that the pesticide methoxchlor has this power, as do certain chemical solvents.

And here is where I am interested in engaging the pro-life community in dialogue, because whether you see this problem, as I do, as a violation of women’s reproductive rights, or whether you see this problem, as many members of my own family do, as a violation of fetal sanctity, maybe we can all agree, pro-life and pro-choice, that any chemical with the power to extinguish human pregnancy has no rightful place in our economy.

When toxic chemicals enter the story of human development during the fifth and sixth months of pregnancy, when the brain is just getting itself knitted together, the risk may be a learning or developmental disability. Of the 3,000 chemicals produced in high volume in the United States, 200 are neurotoxicants and another 1,000 are suspected of affecting the nervous system.

Some chemicals, such as PCBs, have the power to shorten human gestation and so raise the risk for premature birth, which is the leading cause of disability in this country. After birth, some chemicals, such as certain air pollutants, can retard the development of the lungs in ways that impede later athletic performance. Some chemicals raise the risk for pediatric cancers, which are rising in incidence more rapidly than cancers among adults.

Some chemicals can raise the risk for early puberty in girls, which in turn raises the risk for breast cancer in adulthood. In short, chemical toxicants can sabotage the story of child development and so make urgent the need for restructuring our chemicals policy along the principles of precaution and green design. But toxic chemicals do not only discriminate against children, they may also discriminate against our elders. New evidence links environmental exposures to neurotoxicants to increased risks of dementing disorders in old age.

So I am betting that chemical reform will be a cornerstone of this new environmental human rights movement that I see getting under way. I am betting that my children—and the generation of children they are a part of—will, by the time they are my age, consider it unthinkable to allow cancer-causing chemicals, reproductive toxicants, and brain-destroying poisons to freely circulate in our economy. They will find it unthinkable to assume an attitude of silence and willful ignorance about our ecology.

In the same way, I look back on the life of Rachel Carson—my mentor in all this, who died when I was five years old—and find it unthinkable that she could not speak about her own cancer diagnosis, even while dying, as I have written about my diagnosis here. Thirty years of feminism lies between my life as an adult scientist and Rachel Carson’s. That human rights movement has ended the silence around the personal experience of cancer so that I have never had to fear, as did Carson, that my status as a cancer survivor will be used to impeach my science.

And in the same way, I look back on the life of Abraham Lincoln, whose portrait hangs in every schoolroom in Illinois, and marvel that our economy was once dependent on slave labor. Unthinkable. I believe our grandchildren will look back on us and marvel that our economy was once dependent on chemicals that were killing the planet and killing ourselves.

Now I am willing to concede the point that this environmental human rights movement that I am betting on is less an evidence-based prediction than a mother’s fervent hope that my children will never have to fear that the phone ringing on a sunny afternoon will bring bad news from the pathology lab. I’m willing to admit that this bet is a wish that my children will grow up in a world with a functioning Gulf Stream, and some ice caps, and a few coral reefs. And some octopi for my daughter to write her first book about. And some honeybees to help my son the farmer grow apples. It’s a wish that his polar bear Halloween costume not outlast the species.

Wishful or not, I am determined to win this bet because my children’s lives are inextricably bound to the abiding ecology of this planet, which is worth everything I could possibly wager. An environmental human rights movement is the vision under which I labor, from which I am not free to desist, and which may, if we all work together, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

May it be so. 

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about transformative action, are collected in a new anthology, Change Everything Now. Order your copy here.

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Sandra Steingraber is a scholar in residence in the Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies at Ithaca College, and the author of Having Faith.

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